The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Author: Michael Shaara
Reader: Stephen Hoye
Short Review: Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterwork about the Battle of Gettysburg, well-read and voiced by Stephen Hoye. One of the best pieces of historical fiction ever written, Shaara’s story alternates from North to South, depicting the mistakes of some leaders and the genius of others. All the while, he reminds us of the heartbreaking nature of the war that was fought between siblings, classmates, and one-time compatriots. Hoye trips up occasionally, voicing a few characters too similarly and occasionally garbling a regional accent. That said, he does a good job narrating a very important work.
Long Review: I’m no Civil War expert, but I am a history buff and a Virginian, so I grew up going on field trips to Battlefields, and many of my American History classes were taught by men (always men) who were obsessed with the generals and battles that left their names all over this region. So I was intrigued to find an audiobook version of this fantastic novel which had been recommended to me so many times by so many people. I admit that I often exhibit a fair amount of snobbery towards most historical fiction–so much of it is poorly researched and badly written. But when it’s good, I absolutely love it. And this book I love.
I did worry, when I first started to listen, that I’d have a hard time keeping track of all of the characters in this intricate story. In fact, Shaara’s characterizations are so clear and Hoye’s voices distinct enough that I had no trouble keeping up, even though I listened to the audiobook before reading the novel on paper.
Shaara was a dedicated researcher and a talented writer. His study of the war and its participants brought him deep into the lives of the men he writes about here, and that familiarity with his subject allowed him to display nuances that are unknown to most of us. I love the fact that he could look at the different leaders on each side of the Battle of Gettysburg as people, rather than as pawns or model soldiers on a map. A few of the leaders come out looking the brightest–Gettysburg is so widely studied in part because it revealed so much about the leaders in both armies. Shaara was obviously a fan of Chamberlain and Longstreet and critical of Stuart. Nevertheless, even with his quiet critiques, Shaara shows a great deal of compassion to all of the men whose experiences he chronicles in the book, which makes it such an engaging read and listen.
In structure, the novel jumps from camp to camp, following Lee for a time, then Chamberlain, then Longstreet, then Buford, then the British onlooker Fremantle, and on and on. In this way, Shaara depicts the actions and habits of the different participants without seeming to choose a side to follow. He reveals the individual participant’s intelligence, and explores their connections to soldiers and generals on the other side, and to their distant families.
The audiobook also includes an interesting extra feature: an introduction from the author’s son Jeffrey explaining his father’s love for Civil War history and the difficulties he had finding a publisher and getting people to read his novel. Shaara’s manuscript was rejected by 15 publishers before he finally got a book deal. Even after receiving the Pulitzer, Killer Angels still received little attention and disappointing sales. Only after the film adaptation of Shaara’s book, Gettysburg, was released did the novel gain a larger audience, and by then Michael Shaara had died.